Parlours and Sofas: Houses, Status and the Emerging Highland Middle Class

This is part 3 of our short series on the life and times of Sheriff Hugh MacCulloch who is memorialised just outside Dornoch.

Prior to the Clearances, most people (with the exception of the poor and the aristocracy) lived in longhouses. With thick walls of stone and turf, roofed with heather or reed thatch, they gave warmth and shelter to families and livestock. Most were furnished with home-made chairs, benches, chests, and maybe shelves, beds or a bookcase, alongside the spinning wheel and the central fire. People with more money and power, tacksmen and ministers, were however beginning to emulate southern counterparts with two-storey houses of stone, mortar and lime. Their very design not only marked these families out as prestigious, but created a sense of class division and promoted the networks which were so vital to advancement in marriage and the professions.

In the little capital town of Sutherland, Dornoch, Hugh MacCulloch was an important man. As Sheriff-Substitute for the County he lived in the civic centre, close by the court and next to the cathedral ruins, part of which served as the parish church. ‘His house was situated to the south of the town, and at the foot of what was called the Vennel, a small pathway leading from the churchyard.’ This house ‘of an antique cast’ may not have been new but it displayed MacCulloch’s status as a man of status. It was organised for genteel entertainment and networking. ‘The parlour or dining-room had three windows, and on its wall hung several prints. In the north-west corner of the room and near the door, stood a handsome eight-day clock – a present which the Sheriff had received from the Sutherland Volunteers, of which he was Major. A large sofa stood on the opposite side, near the fire-place.’ The house was also a place of work. The Sheriff’s ‘study was a small room upstairs … crammed with books and papers.’

1783 Dornoch map

1783 map of Dornoch. Presumably McCulloch’s house was one of those in the bottom right hand corner of what is shown on the map. Image: Historylinks Museum.

Two floors of attics topped it off. In November 1801 twelve- and fourteen-year-old Donald and Aeneas Sage arrived to lodge. ‘Mrs. MacCulloch showed us to our bedroom. It was at the top of the house, an attic above an attic – a dreary, cold place, having all the rude finishings of a coarse loft.’ Rude perhaps, but when the Sheriff returned that evening ‘he received us with the most fatherly kindness’.

Donald and Aeneas might have been a bit frightened and homesick, but a large stone house was familiar. Their parents, Isabella and Alexander, lived in the Kildonan manse, the house provided for the minister, some three days walk to the north-west. Their home rose tall on the fringes of the cluster of their neighbours’ longhouses. Like the MacCullochs’, their ground floor was occupied by a parlour, bedroom, and a closet. Upstairs were a dining-room, bedroom, and another closet. It also had an attic with two garrets: one a bed-room, the other a storeroom for lumber. Unlike upper class houses there was no wallpaper. Walls were ‘cat and clay, plastered over with lime’, finished with white-wash which came off on everything that touched it. Outside the main house were two low buildings with turf roofs, one containing the nursery, kitchen and byre, and the other, a barn and stable. Like the Sheriff’s house, this building was more than a family home.

Mar - Kildonan, Sage childhood 018

The manse at Kildonan in 2018. Image: Elizabeth Ritchie

One reason ministers were provided with spacious houses was so they could provide hospitality. When Hugh MacCulloch came to investigate a riot in the heights of Kildonan in October 1801, he stayed at the manse. Donald recollected: ‘On the evening of his arrival … he was drenched almost to the skin, as it had rained heavily through the day; he especially required dry stockings, and he preferred putting them on at the kitchen fireside … he took particular notice of me, and asked me many questions about my progress in learning, particularly in Latin. He was much pleased with my answers, and said that, if my father would send my brother and me to school at Dornoch, he would keep us for three months in his own house.’

In the years before the clearances, it is possible to see the emergence of a distinct middling, professional class in the rural Highlands through their houses. As elsewhere in Britain they began to mark themselves out with homes in non-indigenous styles, partly built with materials not available locally. Specialised rooms provided spaces for professional men to work with books and papers; promoted privacy; and separated domestic life from hospitality. Parlours and dining rooms, rather than a shared domestic space where family and visitors were cooked for, ate and entertained alike, meant domestic rituals were formalised, and visitors were separated into those catered for in the kitchen or formally entertained in the parlour. Spare bedrooms made providing hospitality to travelling gentlemen easy. So along with the new houses were built the networks which promoted the careers, marriages and opportunities for the families who lived in them.

Sources:

Donald Sage, Memorabilia Domestica, chapter 9

Ideas about homes, respectability and the rising middle class particularly inspired by Catherine Hall and Leonore Davidoff, Family fortunes: men and women of the English middle class 1780-1850 (London, 1987, 2002).

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